Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton don’t agree on much: perhaps the only things they have in common besides being classified as Homo sapiens are their personal ambition and a profound aversion to having the press mucking around in their business.
When the two debate, the world will see different policies, different personalities, different STYLES: a contest between brash yahooism and cautious calculation, just for a start. This profound contrast extends to the digital realm as well, where the two have run radically different campaigns already.
Trump: The Internet is All About Him
Trump’s digital tool of choice is Twitter, where he feels he can be as provocative as he wants. For Trump, social media is deeply personal. He seems to run his OWN social channels, for instance tweeting at Hillary directly during her foreign-policy speech last week (missives that she anticipated in her remarks). Looking back at months of campaign Facebook posts, Trump’s stand out for being almost entirely about HIM. He rarely makes policy pronouncements, highlights volunteers or does any of the other tactics campaigns employ to keep supporters engaged on many levels. Instead, his posts are about him, the crowds that come to see him, and his various grievances.
In taking such a personal approach to social media, Trump is a fundamentally different KIND of internet-age candidate than a Barack Obama or a Bernie Sanders. He plays the news media as perhaps only a celebrity could, with cable hosts waiting breathlessly for each outrageous post. Against his Twitter taunts, other Republicans were helpless: the best they could do was make fun of his erratic spelling. And how’d that work out for “little Marco”, aka the “choker”?
Trump may use social media as a strategic messaging weapon, but the rest of his digital operation is minimal at best. He has no grassroots fundraising operation, he’s allergic to data-driven decision-making, and even his campaign’s basic functions seem mired in chaos. Since this kind of “organization” seems fundamental to his way of doing business, we shouldn’t expect much to change. Look for him to ignore targeting and grassroots outreach in favor of ginning up coverage on cable news, and despite the RNC’s pledge to spend heavily on digital advertising between now and November, his campaign won’t take advantage most of the online options that internet political professionals now take for granted.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton Runs a Modern, Integrated Online Campaign
If all happy families are alike but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, we don’t have much to say about Hillary Clinton’s digital campaign: it’ll run like a modern operation that’s learned the lessons of 2008 and 2012, particularly since many of the people who helped Obama win are working for her now.
Her large and organized digital and tech teams will target her online outreach carefully, learning from each round of content as they develop the next (note that they’re already taking a personal approach, too, for instance trying to get under Trump’s skin via Twitter). Her grassroots fundraising will likely pick up now that she’s locked up the nomination, and while she hasn’t equalled Bernie Sanders’s small-dollar donor base, she’s still raised a sizable amount of money through email so far. Her staff also understand the power of online advertising to deliver specific messages to the right voters, which will work to boost turnout among groups who’ve been the target of Trumpian attacks.
Most importantly, her campaign will embody the “culture of data” and technology that’s grown up on the Left, baking hard numbers and digital tools into every aspect of their operations. As a taste, look at the work her tech team put into refining the process that encourages people to become repeat/recurring online donors. Experimentation and analytics helped them boost the rate at which people handed over their credit card numbers by OVER 200 PERCENT, which will likely be worth millions in the months to come. Extend this mindset across the entire campaign, and you have an organization that’s trying to get the most out of every hour and every dollar.
In the battle of chaos vs. consideration, my money’s on the side of the big battalions. Trump’s tweets may “win” the news cycle many times between now and November, but Clinton’s focused approach, taste for data, huge staff and ample resources will let her reach the voters she needs to win the fight that counts — the one at the ballot box.
What about the long term? Looking back to 2004, every presidential election cycle has trained a new batch of digital campaigners and given rise to new firms and new technologies. Obama in particular turned loose two solid waves of talent, with Democrats up and down the ballot now benefiting from their work. This effect has been somewhat more muted on the Right, in part because McCain and Romney didn’t invest as much in the tools and the staff as the Democrats did.
With Trump now holding up their flag, the situation will only get worse for the Republicans. With no significant digital operation and little investment in data and analytics, he won’t bequeath his successors a digital bounty, meaning that Democrats will not only keep their lead but probably expand it.
Donald Trump will likely do yuuuge damage to the Republican brand in 2016 — in fact, he already has. He’s driving away Latinos and other people of color, young people, women, the disabled, the majority of Americans with a college education…not exactly a strategy to grow the party’s base of support. Meanwhile, by neglecting to run much more than a Twitter-feed digital campaign — a Bizarro World version of a comprehensive online outreach machine — he’ll also cripple Republicans in their long struggle to catch up with the Democrats online. Now, that’s REALLY winning.
Photo: Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla: a fight for the ages